Review: Logic3 i-Station Portable Speaker System
Pros: A fully dockable and portable iPod speaker system with left, right, and subwoofer speakers; accommodates all sizes of iPods (including iPod photos), runs off battery power, sounds pretty good, especially at higher volume levels, very attractive street price.
Cons: Altec’s iM3 and iMmini systems sound modestly better at low volume levels, “3D” button adds solid treble boost that unfortunately sounds worse at higher levels. Overall a fair audio performer, not excellent by comparison with comparably priced stationary speaker systems.
After a reader brought Logic3’s i-Station dockable speaker system to our attention, we knew that we had to check it out. With a $149.99 suggested retail price – but selling just about every place for $85 or less – the system’s unique design had serious potential: it’s currently the only portable iPod speaker set that includes a “2.1” channel setup, with a subwoofer and two smaller satellite speakers.
What is 2.1-Channel Audio?
In the portable speaker market, two-channel speaker setups are the norm: one channel is “left” audio, the other is “right” audio, and each channel includes separate audio information. That’s why songs sometimes have sounds that move from left to right, or appear to change positions as you listen. But portable speakers are frequently limited in their low-end bass “thump.”
Speaker makers have two ways to design around this. Like Altec Lansing’s inMotions, they can add extra small left and right channel speakers capable of making reasonably low-pitched noises. Or, they can add a subwoofer – a larger speaker solely dedicated to low-end bass. When a subwoofer is added, the speaker system is classified as a “.1” system, so a two-channel system with a subwoofer is a 2.1 system, and a five-channel surround system with a subwoofer is a 5.1 system.
Why is the i-Station Unique?
iLounge has classified speakers in four categories – ultra-portable, portable, quasi-portable, and non-portable. Ultra-portable systems such as Macally’s category-leading PodWave (iLounge rating: A-) don’t even try to replicate bass thump. Altec Lansing’s portable inMotions (iLounge rating: B+) are currently their category leaders, compensating for their lack of subwoofers by using multiple small speaker drivers that together produce a bass-heavy sound. Quasi-portable speakers such as Tivoli’s iPAL (iLounge rating: B) and Bose’s SoundDock (iLounge rating: B+) have legitimately rich bass, but are larger than the portable options and can’t easily be taken everywhere. And non-portable speakers such as JBL’s Creature 2.1 system (iLounge rating: A) frequently have rich bass due to their dedicated subwoofers – or even more impressive, room-shaking woofers - but aren’t designed to be moved around.
The i-Station is the first truly portable iPod speaker system to include a speaker designated as a subwoofer. It uses small left and right “satellite” speakers, plus a dedicated 2.5” subwoofer – the same size as the single speaker in Tivoli’s larger iPAL. And yet the i-Station is truly portable, running off of four AA batteries or AC power, and collapsing into a flat backpack-friendly package roughly the same size as a hardcover book.
Logic3 has included three other features that add additional value to the i-Station package: first, like Bose’s SoundDock, the i-Station’s docking area can physically accommodate every iPod released to date – first-generation to iPod photo and shuffle. Seven plastic inserts are used to hold the iPods in place, and though the iPod photo felt a little loose and the iPod shuffle required some cable maneuvering to keep in place, they all worked. By comparison, Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM3 doesn’t fit the iPod photo, so this is a bonus of Logic3’s design.
Notably, but not surprisingly, the i-Station’s dock only recharges Dock Connector-equipped iPods – 3G, 4G, mini, and photo iPods. It cannot be used to recharge older first- and second-generation iPods or iPod shuffles, which connect only for audio purposes, and then via their top headphone jacks. Logic3 includes a stereo audio cable for this purpose in each box, and you can use non-iPod devices with the speakers, as well.
As a second feature, like the inMotion systems and unlike the SoundDock, the i-Station serves as a complete Apple Dock substitute, and can connect to your computer for iPod-to-iTunes synchronization via USB and FireWire cables. Logic3 includes its own mini-USB to USB cables, as well as mini-FireWire to FireWire cables. The mini ends connect to the i-Station, and the full-sized ends to your computer, just like Apple’s cables. Synchronization worked without a problem when we tested both sets of cables, though the speakers had to be plugged in to use the feature. The i-Station’s Dock Connector is a plastic (unauthorized) part, for those keeping score, but didn’t appear to have any problems in our testing.
Third and finally, the i-Station includes a few cute cosmetic touches that iPod fans will like. While resembling Altec Lansing’s original inMotion speakers – now sometimes called the iM1 system – i-Station sets itself apart.
When folded up, the i-Station is a large and rounded-off glossy white rectangular box that appears to have three speaker drivers facing you: one at the left, one in the center, and one at the right. Four buttons sit under the larger center subwoofer: power on/off, volume down, volume up, and “3D.” A Logic3 logo is underneath the volume buttons, and an i-Station logo is above them where the subwoofer sits.
Flipping the closed i-Station around, left and right battery compartments sit on its back sides, with Line In and USB ports on its left, AC power and FireWire ports on its right, each clearly labeled. Rubber mounting feet are found on the i-Station’s bottom, and also on its top back side, as part of the hinging central speaker housing. To open the i-Station, you simply push the central speaker backwards until you hear a click. The click is actually the popping out of two spring-loaded locking buttons on the inside of the central speaker housing, which prevent the housing from collapsing after being opened. Press them in to flatten the unit.
Once opened, the subwoofer sits behind the left and right speakers, forming the system’s mounting base, and an iPod dock sits immediately between all three speakers, above the volume, power, and 3D buttons. Like most subwoofers, the position of the third speaker doesn’t really matter, and isn’t hurt by its placement behind the docked iPod. But surprisingly, two blue LED lights are found on the lower left and right sides of the dock, illuminating whenever the i-Station is turned on and resembling the underside speaker glow of JBL’s Creature satellite speakers. It’s a cool touch, for sure.
Logic3 also includes a clear hard plastic speaker protector with every i-Station; it slides onto the top of the closed system and holds properly in place. Our review protector arrived a bit scratched up, but it’s not clear whether this is the case with standard shipping units, or how long it takes the protector to develop scratches of its own. Regardless, the protector is there to prevent damage to your speakers, and it serves that purpose perfectly well.
Finally, every i-Station includes a relatively large all-white AC power brick and a detachable wall cable. While not as compact as the power adapters in Altec’s inMotions, Logic3’s adapter can still be carried around without a problem, and thankfully isn’t black in color like a number of other iPod AC power adapters.
We had no problem using the i-Station as a charging and computer sync station; its AC power brick properly powered the speakers whenever the unit was plugged into wall power, and recharges the docked iPod inside – even when the speakers were turned off. The system effortlessly made connections via USB and FireWire to our test computer, and the inexpensive system’s inclusion of extra cables was definitely appreciated.
Like many other speakers we’ve tested, the i-Station’s audio quality sounded very good – not amazing - when heard in isolation. Midrange and bass were both acceptable for a portable system, particularly one available for under $85, and though we initially found the system’s treble underwhelming, that was helped by a simple push of the “3D” button. Though intended to simulate surround sound, the 3D button makes two basic changes: it boosts treble and adds a tiny reverb to certain sounds, creating a modestly larger apparent sound stage. Until we began to push the i-Station to higher volume levels, we generally preferred its sound when 3D was turned on. Our feeling was that most users will feel comfortable with the i-Station’s sound, especially with 3D on, under typical listening conditions.
That said, audiophiles will no doubt laugh off the i-Station’s subwoofer as unworthy of the name. Even in small non-portable multimedia speaker systems, small dedicated speakers called “subwoofers” don’t deliver the rocking bass boost they promise. In a portable system, that problem is only exacerbated. Though the i-Station’s 2.5” subwoofer is indeed as large as the speaker in Tivoli’s iPAL, it’s not enclosed in the sort of cubic, deep chamber typically needed to create bass resonance - the sort you see as a standalone cabinet in non-portable speakers. At typical listening levels, it adds bass, but not much, and certainly not a sub-sonic thump.
It’s hard to consider a speaker system in isolation, however, so we ran some comparative tests to see how the i-Station performed against its peers. To keep the comparison as close to apples-to-apples as possible, we tested it against Altec Lansing’s equally portable inMotion iM3s (iLounge rating: B+), which are similar to the company’s original inMotions and a bit less balanced (though more powerful than) the company’s iMmini system (iLounge rating: A-). We tested at different volume levels with a wide variety of tracks, ranging from rock to rap to Indian strings to spoken word. The results were somewhat surprising.
As our reviews of the Altec speakers noted, they do fine at “normal” listening levels, but exhibit noticeable distortion when the volume’s turned up. As travel-friendly portable speakers, the products have rated short of flat A grades, and not flat B or C grades, because we continue to believe that people most often listen to them in small rooms, sitting fairly nearby, and will only be disappointed when they try to push the volume upwards. They’re good as desk or hotel room travel speakers, but not as well positioned as outdoor speakers.
When compared against the i-Station at typical desk or hotel room listening levels, we marginally preferred the overall sound of the Altec iM3 system for most of the songs we heard, ironically mostly for the warmness of the iM3’s midrange and bass, and the iMmini as a more balanced system with better treble. Use of the i-Station’s 3D button helped a bit, expanding the unit’s apparent sound stage when we were sitting nearby, but not making a huge difference. However, when the i-Station was turned up to higher volumes, its superior bass capability kicked in, producing a richer sound. We’d classify this as a modest mistake of design on Logic3’s part: the critically emphasized subwoofer component really needs its own volume/strength control, and unfortunately won’t be of benefit past the iM3’s subwoofer-free bass level unless you really crank the volume.
Better bass wasn’t the i-Station’s only benefit at louder volumes: across the board, it sounded significantly better than the high-distortion inMotions when turned up loud. Clearer bass and mid-range amplification was its comparative forte. However, there was one consequence: the higher the volume goes, the less you’ll want to use the 3D feature. As it artificially boosts treble levels, at louder levels, treble distortion becomes increasingly noticeable. (If you listen carefully, it’s noticeable at lower volume levels too, in “s” sounds.) Flipping the 3D feature off at higher volumes fixes that issue, but you lose a bit of treble as a consequence.
Overall, our feelings on the i-Station were generally positive. At low volume levels, typical users will likely prefer the sound of the inMotion systems by a small amount, but it’s a toss-up as to whether that amount corresponds to the price differences between the systems. One of our U.K.-based editors noted that the U.S. $50+ or greater price difference is magnified overseas, and there weighed even more strongly in favor of the i-Station given that the audio differences were not huge.
In sum, the i-Station delivers comparable (though not superior) sound to the inMotions at low levels, superior sound at high levels, and the lowest overall entry price for a fully dockable portable iPod speaker system. Its compatibility with iPod photos cannot be had in the iM3 or iMmini systems – only in the considerably more expensive, and not portable Bose SoundDock – rendering Logic3’s product a better travel option for iPod photo owners.
Like too many of the other portable and quasi-portable systems we’ve tested, the i-Station rates a B+ - a grade that reflects the compromise nature of so many of these options; they all have advantages and disadvantages that fairly equate to their closest rivals. We would strongly prefer an option with better low- to medium-volume audio quality and user bass/treble adjustability, but no one has yet delivered that in a portable iPod-ready package.
Judged in the context of actually available options, we can’t help but somewhat prefer the sound of the imMini and iM3 at typical indoor listening levels, nor can we ignore the i-Station’s better loud volume and outdoor performance. The iM3’s great remote, superior case, and travel power adapters all weigh in its favor, but the i-Station’s considerably lower price is a strong draw. Depending on where you shop, Altec’s older inMotions may still be available, and present an even more comparable option on both low-volume performance and price.
As with all portable speaker systems we’ve reviewed, we urge you to consider your actual uses of the speakers and decide whether you need the travel-friendly portability or could generally enjoy a more fully-featured stationary system such as JBL’s comparably-priced Creatures. If you really need portable speakers and are either on a budget or plan to listen at louder volumes, the i-Station may well be the best currently available option.